Nostalgia Run Rampant: Biscuits
by Phillip Charles DeNise
My mother was the world's best cook. I'm pretty sure that there are many of us who feel that way, and I pity those who do not, or cannot. Before my Mom attained to this very prestigious honor, my paternal Grandmother held the title.
When my Dad went overseas during WWII, Mom moved in with her in-laws, and the tutorial began. You can imagine all the psychological tension that such an arrangement entailed for both teacher and student. Further complicating things for my then 20-year-old future mother, was Granny's habit of adding a dollup of this and a pinch of that, instead of using a measuring cup and spoons.
Mastering the common biscuit became the most difficult goal for Mom, but she proved to be quite determined, and persisted regardless of all discouragements, until her new, and better biscuit emerged from the process. They were beautiful, a bit smaller(meaning you could consume more of them) and surprisingly consistent. I hope my dear Granny is not rolling over in her grave; I'll always miss her cooking, just like I now miss my Mom's.
Times have changed so much since the 1950's when I was growing up, and nothing has been affected more than our kitchens and what you find inside them. In Granny's refrigerator, you could grab a piece of fried chicken from a dinner plate she had set in there; never any wasted leftovers from her cast iron fryer. The cold chicken legs tasted so good; that was then; now, you may find that cold fried chicken is mostly not fit to eat.
Here's why: Granny's chicken came whole from the corner grocery, where they had a full-time butcher that had killed and plucked a live chicken (carefully draining all its blood during the process).
Granny used to have a vegetable man who came round with a truckload of fresh produce; there was a scale dangling from the shade/roof sticking out at the back. Standing around the back of his truck while the neighborhood ladies picked out just what they could use, and paid for these items with coins pulled from tiny change purses, was a good way for a fellow to figure out where to go for supper(if his nose was not enough to tell him on which door to knock). Mr. Garman always had plenty of both new and old potatoes; Mom preferred old potatoes for her french fries; both texture and taste are quite different from new potatoes.
Back in these good old days, eggs were fresher because they came from the layers down at the corner grocery, that had not yet graduated to baking hen.
Milk was fresh, whole & probably unpasteurized; it was delivered to your doorstep in re-used bottles with waxed paper caps on them. Granny always bought more than would be used before it began to sour, and that sour milk, with a thick layer of butterfat floating at the top, was the liquid component in the mixture that produced buttermilk biscuits. The bottle brush in the drawer was used to scrub out the cloudy white ring left at the mouth of the bottle (where that layer of fat had been floating), before putting your empties back on the porch for the milkman.
On Granny's counter was a wooden bowl that was quite shallow and as big around as a prize-winning pumpkin. It was seldom put away, and usually contained enough flour to either make a pan of biscuits, or dredge a skilletful of freshly-cut chicken pieces (Dad's favorite piece was the 'little boy's britches;' that's the piece that contains the wishbone; the same bone that is sawn in half down at Wally World).
When you need a bit more flour, you scoop it from the cannister over on the other counter (lots of counter space; hooray). To refill the canister, you pour from the large sack of flour resting on the floor in the pantry; the printed cloth sack used to make clothing for your younguns on your Singer, and the sack where I used to find that Capitola Money. "Watch now girl, and you can learn how to make biscuits for my son."
By the time I was old enough to watch this secret process, step one would be to scoop out with your fingers a large dollup of Crisco(instead of the lard used for shortening before such luxuries as hydrogenated corn oil were commonly available).
Crisco was purchased in a small aluminum can that you opened with a key; Grandpappy's workshop was full of empty ones with lids that could inflict horrible cuts on a curious little boy's hands; these rows of blue cans held various kinds of nails, screws, nuts and bolts & various electrical parts used to rewire the house, make something into a lamp or build a radio; no coins could be found, but bloody pawprints testified to the thoroughness of my search.
Now Granny would plop that dollup of shortening down in that layer of flour and begin pinching all the lumps until there weren't any more, fully expecting that her less-than-eager trainee would put away the can without being asked to do so, as Granny's hands are now in no condition to handle anything. Perhaps she secretly wished to draw a little blood with that greasy tin-lid, but said nothing aloud. She would ask, in a certain tone that implied polite command with a pinch of "You should have anticipated this," for help retrieving the sour milk from the 'ice box.' This could also confuse a young girl, because there was an ice box sitting on the back porch, just outside the back door. There was no milk sitting in it though, and if there had been, it would have been really soured, as it had been many years since the ice man last cameth.
Granny probably allowed this girl to slowly pour the milk into a pool at the center of all that flour until commanded to stop. Then, while she turned to replace the glass bottle on the wire-rack shelf in the quietly-humming Frigidaire, Granny would have already started adding those 'pinches.' Some Calumet baking powder, some Arm & Hammer baking soda & some table salt (Morton's Iodized to ward off those unsightly goiters).
The exact amount needed to make the biscuits rise is pretty forgiving, but the girl doesn't know this, and she is thoroughly intimidated by the reprimand for not paying close enough attention. Plenty of salt is quite necessary for the biscuits to taste like anything; leave out the salt entirely and a houndog won't eat 'em.
Now comes the hard parts. Biscuits are not tender if you overwork the dough (not flaky if you don't get enough shortening). Once those secret dry ingredients have been introduced into that puddle of milk, you begin mixing/stirring with your fingers to ensure all those six ingredients blend uniformly into every part of the sticky wet lump that is taking shape. You have to develop a feel for this, and when done right, the lump can be lifted from the bowl in one piece, there is still lots of dry flour surrounding your dough & a simple wipe of your hands/fingers on your chenille apron will clean them enough to move to the next step.
You take some of that leftover flour and sprinkle it liberally onto your counter. The counter may be covered with oilcloth to facilitate cleanup, and it was during the 1950's that Formica counter-tops began to appear everywhere (about as easy to wipe clean as the oilcloth, and about as questionably sanitary). You could just use today's newspaper for a speedy cleanup, if you don't mind those tiny letters baked onto the bottom. Hope I don't get Ralph McGill's picture on my biscuit. In your sprinkled flour, you gently lay your dough; then you must put some more flour on top of the still-rounded lump. With your rolling pin, gently roll out to the desired thickness; a bit less than one inch will allow for a fluffy biscuit nearly as tall as wide.
Granny cut her biscuits from the slab with a water glass, took the scrap missing the circles of dough, tossed on more flour and rolled again. If there was still room on her baking sheet, after placing the tougher double-rolled biscuits, she'd sort of hand-form something from the scrap to fill in. These 'odd-boys' were given to the children hot from the oven; margarine was in wide use by the time I was big enough to 'butter' my own. A pretty hot oven (375) for eight to ten minutes was about right; no glass doors back then; you either kept snatching the door open, which of course let out the superhot air & made them take longer, or you kept your fingers crossed and watched that old clock on the wall.
My mother perfected all those dishes she had learned about the hard way, once she had her own kitchen. Her biscuits were cut with a small biscuit-cutter that was sharp for her identical if smaller biscuits; she brushed the tops with a finger dipped in canned milk, which made them shiny and golden on top. The scrap was forcefully rolled into a much thinner round piece of dough. This dough got itself smeared thickly with margarine, smothered in lots of brown sugar & sprinkled with fresh pecans. Rolled into a tube-shape and sliced into enough wheels to completely fill a cake pan, your desert went into the oven when the biscuits came out, and needed to come back out when you could smell them out in the dining room.
Half of the things we used in those two old kitchens to prepare and cook our meals would be totally unrecognizable for today's housewives(Are there any that would not object loudly to this term?); things like the meat grinder for her liver puddin' or the hand-cranked device clamped to the table, with various cup-shaped graters and slicers that were inter-changeable & removeable for washing or the gricer which turned those boiled old potatoes into the smoothest mashed potatoes you ever tasted.
My mother adopted any new convenience that seemed at all helpful, but like her candy thermometers, many quickly fell into disuse; this because she posessed skills that most of the gadget-buying public would never have. G_d, I miss these women, the smells that emanated from their kitchens & a lot more that has gone missing in the name of progress.